Reading and QPR have all but claimed two relegation spots. A game of musical chairs will decide the third. The chairs are worth tens of millions of dollars in television revenue. West Ham and Southampton remain in the mix mathematically. But it would take them doing nothing and every other club doing well for them to get caught it. The true race is down to six teams. Some are clawing their way out. Some sit mired in a tailspin.
Newcastle [36 pts]
Form: at Swansea (L), Stoke, at Wigan (L), at Man City (L), Fulham [6 pts]
Home Remaining: Sunderland, Liverpool, Arsenal
Away Remaining: West Brom, West Ham, QPR
Last week’s exuberant celebration expressed the type of season Newcastle has been having: frustrating. They are the most talented of the six sides. They are also free from distraction, having been eliminated from the Europa League. This is not an easy run to the finish. But beating Sunderland at home in the Tyne-Wear Derby on Sunday, would leave them all but safe.
Norwich [35 pts]
Form: at Man United (L), Southampton (D), at Sunderland (D), at Wigan (L), Swansea (D) [3 pts]
Home Remaining: Reading, Aston Villa, West Brom
Away Remaining: Arsenal, Stoke, Manchester City
Norwich had a stretch of five-straight home wins last autumn. That may be what keeps them up. They get beat by good teams. They try to hold out for a result in more attainable fixtures. Norwich have drawn seven of their last 15 matches, but have just one win over that same span. Arsenal and Manchester City away are likely losses. But if they can beat Reading at home, or scatter in a few more draws they should be safe.
Stoke [34 pts]
Form: West Ham (L), at Newcastle (L), West Brom (D), at Everton (L), Aston Villa (L) [1 pt]
Home Remaining: Man United, Norwich, Tottenham
Away Remaining: QPR, Sunderland, Southampton
Stoke are stuck in a loop. They can play their traditional artless, anti-soccer and stay up every year. They can aspire to more and risk failure. They can’t do what they are doing now, which is muddle somewhere in between that and be ineffectual. The Potters have just one point from their last seven matches and one win in their last 13. They also have a brutal run to the finish. The three home matches are Man United, a six-pointer with Norwich and Tottenham still-fighting to stay in the Champions League places. The away matches may be where they need to pick up points. Stoke have one win in 16 matches outside the Britannia this season.
Aston Villa [33 pts]
Form: Man City (L), at Reading, QPR, Liverpool (L), at Stoke [9 pts]
Home Remaining: Fulham, Sunderland, Chelsea
Away Remaining: Man United, Norwich, Wigan
Villa had a bleak December, losing four-straight matches to Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Wigan by a combined score of 18-1. Things have looked far brighter since. Their abundant young talent has started coalescing. The club has won three of their past six. Few would fault them for narrow losses to Man City, Arsenal and Liverpool. Three of the remaining matches are relegation six-pointers. For a club in good form, that’s an opportunity to extract themselves and to condemn others.
Sunderland [31 pts]
Form: Fulham (D), at QPR (L), Norwich (D), Man United (L), at Chelsea (L) [2 pts]
Home Remaining: Everton, Stoke, Southampton
Away Remaining: Newcastle, Aston Villa, Tottenham
Martin O’Neill tends to burn out his teams before the finish line. Not surprisingly, Sunderland have gone on a nine-match win-streak that earned O’Neill the boot. The club took a risk, bringing in temperamental and fascist Italian manager Paolo Di Canio for the finish. That hire could rally or scuttle them. The schedule looks tough. Sunderland plays three six-pointers out of the final six. Two more of the matches are against Everton and Tottenham, still fighting for a Champions League place. Southampton at home is the only safe harbor. Southampton are a better team.
Wigan [31 pts]
Form: at Reading, Liverpool (L), Newcastle, Norwich, at QPR (D) [10 pts]
Home Remaining: Tottenham, Swansea, Aston Villa
Away Remaining: Man City, West Ham, West Brom, Arsenal
Roberto Martinez is your friend in college who is smart, likable and only starts writing his 15-page paper at 4:00 the night before it is due. Wigan have done what they need to do to stay up: win, earning 10 points from their last five matches. They have a game in hand on the other clubs. That said, they still face three of the top five (Man City and Arsenal away). Neither West Ham nor West Brom have an incentive to be bothered, but wins against Swansea and Aston Villa at home are crucial.
Prediction: Stoke will keep it interesting, but not even fascist discipline can revive dead legs. The smart money is on Sunderland to drop.